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The original Banana Republic, a byword for corruption and poverty,
is all too often overlooked by foreign tourists. Many of those who do make it here head straight for the ruins of
, one of the finest Maya sites in the region. Some even miss that, in their rush to get to the palm-fringed beaches and clear Caribbean waters of the
. Beyond these prime tourist sites, however, is a land of inspiring, often untouched natural beauty.
The second-largest country in Central America after Nicaragua, Honduras sprawls from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, from Caribbean flatlands through the cooler mountainous interior, and south to the sun-baked shores of the Golfo de Fonseca. West to east, the forested highlands on the border with Guatemala give way to the vast, undeveloped savannas and wetlands of the Mosquitia. While eco-tourism is a relatively new concept here, more and more Hondurans are becoming aware of the role the country's extensive network of
national parks and reserves
plays in protecting irreplaceable natural resources. Almost a quarter of Honduran territory is protected, but a lack of funding and growing pressure on the land mean this status often exists more on paper than in reality. Nonetheless, the remoter reaches of the parks still host an astonishing array of flora and fauna, amid some of the finest stretches of virgin
in Central America.
Honduras's close alliance with the US, while preventing the bitter conflicts that beset its neighbours in the 1980s, has not alleviated the country's acute
social and economic problems
. After Nicaragua, this is Latin America's poorest nation, with levels of deprivation that can be disturbing to witness: some eighty percent of Hondurans live in poverty and forty percent are unable to read or write. Exacerbating the pressure on economic and environmental resources is a rapidly growing population, now approaching seven million, much of it absorbed by the ever-increasing shantytowns ringing the main cities.
It is in the cities that the pressures are most evident: life is fast and harsh and social intercourse is conducted at times with gratuitous abruptness. Move out into the rural areas, however, and the open generosity and genuine friendliness displayed by those who have little else are what leave an enduring impression. On the north coast, where the population is more ethnically diverse, the heat and sunshine combine to create a way of life that's more Caribbean than Latin
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